Ojisan Zanoni by Michael Willey is a type of sequel to one of the most interesting, yet highly overlooked classic novels of British literature. The original novel, Zanoni, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton was about the Rosicrucian character Zanoni, who becomes involved in the events of the French Revolution. The novel was extremely popular when published in 1842, as were most of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s works. Today he is best remembered for The Last Days of Pompeii, the sentence “It was a dark and stormy night” and “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Zanoni influenced Dickens in writing A Tale of Two Cities and Bulwer-Lytton suggested to Dickens the alternate ending to Great Expectations.
With such a prestigious background to the character of Zanoni, Michael Willey has taken the main character and created a simple tale around him, which is lacking in usual novelistic plot devices. Had I written the Zanoni sequel, I probably would have introduced the title character as involved in some other great political event of significance. Zanoni’s life, in this work, however, is far more quiet, and dignified and interesting as a result. Willey does not give us a history of what happened to Zanoni in the two hundred years since the French Revolution, perhaps understandably since at the end of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, Zanoni goes to the guillotine and his wife dies, although his child lives. Willey’s novel begins with Christopher and Ayami, a young married couple, who befriend Zanoni and learn from him. Christopher and his father before him have known Zanoni, while Ayami, is Japanese, but has an Italian ancestor named Viola, who is doubtless intended to be the Viola from Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, who was Zanoni’s love interest and mother of Zanoni’s child. I assume then that Zanoni is intended to be Ayami’s ancestor, and he hints at this when he says she may call him uncle and that he has been to Japan where he is known as Ojisan, hence the Italian-Japanese title of the novel.
I will not give away what little plot there is, but simply state that Christopher and Ayami hear Zanoni play a beautiful piece of music, and then they receive the composition and when they later play it for others, it begins an amazing journey for them.
Zanoni is himself portrayed in the book largely as a botanist or scientist, in keeping with his Rosicrucian background, although Willey never uses the term Rosicrucian in the novel. The Rosicrucians, in British Gothic literature of the early nineteenth century, were depicted as seeking the elixir which would prolong life, and Zanoni in Bulwer-Lytton and Willey’s novels, is a more mature version of this Rosicrucian character, less interested in sorcery or alchemy than true science, a science which he states the world is not yet ready to understand, but which has tremendous healing powers.
In recent years, writing sequels to the classics has become popular, but to my knowledge, Willey’s novel is the first sequel to one of Bulwer-Lytton’s books. The story succeeds in being written in a charming Victorian style typical of the first-person narratives of that era. There are some punctuation irregularities to the style, but they do not effect the flow or reading of the story. Ojisan Zanoni is an enjoyable read, and reminiscent of Hudson’s The Purple Country and Green Mansions in its descriptions of South America. I will be interested both to see if Willey chooses to write again of Zanoni (especially if he has Zanoni tell his history for the last two centuries to Christopher and Ayami), and to discover whatever else may come from his pen.
- Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. author of Iron Pioneers, for MQT REVIEWS
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